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Gartner: PC hardware getting more reliable

Parts are going wrong in notebooks less often than before, but they still lag behind desktops.

PCs are lasting longer without a part going wrong, according to new research from Gartner.

There has been a 25 percent decrease in annual failure rates for PC hardware over the last two years, the research firm said in a report published last week. It also found that notebooks have seen a significant improvement, even if they haven't caught up in reliability with desktops.

A hardware failure was considered by Gartner researchers to be any problem that meant a hardware component would have to be replaced, whether a broken latch or a motherboard meltdown.

For notebooks built in 2003 or 2004, 20 percent of owners experienced failure in the first year on average, according to Gartner research. By the fourth year, that rate is predicted to rise to 28 percent. But the rate dropped to 15 percent in the first year for notebooks built in 2005 or 2006, and it is projected to be only 22 percent in the fourth year.

The annual failure rate for desktops in the first year of use has also decreased, from 7 percent to 5 percent.

The improvement can be attributed to a higher level of quality assurance testing now, Gartner analyst Leslie Fiering said. A couple of years ago, everybody from component suppliers to original design manufacturers, PC manufacturers and system integrators were all under pressure to get things out faster and at a lower cost.

Because of this, the ranges for testing hardware at the extreme ends of what it would actually withstand in commercial use were shortened to save time and money, Fiering said. That eventually changed, though.

"Manufacturers eventually realized that a penny saved upfront wound up being dollars at the back end in warranty costs, plus annoying customers," Fiering said.

Design consciousness and improvements have also contributed to the reduced incidents.

Screen breakage used to be the leading problem in notebooks, according to the report. That has been replaced by motherboard and hard drive breakdowns--the same two main sources of failure for desktops. This is due to more components, like network interface cards, being integrated into the motherboard, Fiering said.

The Gartner analyst also attributed the rise in reliability to a greater attention to design detail. Many notebooks now have features, such as suspension mounting of hard drives, that reduce damage from impacts. Even seemingly minor details like rubber bumpers between notebook lids and keyboards have created more space to prevent keys from damaging screens, Fiering pointed out.

Because PC manufacturers generally do not disclose the amount of failure in their product lines, Gartner's study relied on off-the-record accounts from third-party warranty repair companies and from companies that manage 50,000-plus units.